Archive for June, 2008

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

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    Five years ago, Oscar-winning director Ang Lee helmed Hulk, which was a fascinating, very original take on a super-hero movie. Not only did Lee, get this, focus on character development (!), he also created a film style that looked and felt like a comic book. It was fresh, it was remarkably well-done and it was considered a box office disaster (never mind it had generally positive reviews and opened number one at the box office the first week.) Then, the Hulk backlash came, and you would have thought that Hulk was the worst film ever made (remember, this was the year of Gigli, Hulk was like Citizen Kane compared to that movie).

Marvel wasn’t thrilled with the film either, and decided to give the franchise a reboot, so they could make more sequels from a more action-oriented (read: generic) source film. So, you had an original, unique film (basically an art film disguised as a super hero movie) which the audiences ultimately rejected, replaced with a generic, run-of-the-mill action film five years later. You replace Eric Bana, who was well-cast as Bruce Banner, with the finely-toned Edward Norton with his barrel-chest and perfect abs (I’m sorry, but no scientist has a rock solid chest). This version proves what Hollywood thinks of its audiences: you are idiots that do not appreciate story or character, but rather mindless action.I wonder, though, are they wrong? Because I notice that Incredible Hulk was number one at the box office, and will probably be next week also. Don’t get me wrong, I dug Tim Roth as the baddie and all of the references to other “Hulk” comic characters (Doc Samson, The Leader, Abomination) were fun, as was the special super hero cameo from another franchise, but the fact is, I really don’t think this movie needed to exist. Hey, why didn’t they just do a Hulk sequel, with Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly and Sam Elliott all reprising their roles? Too much of a stretch?Ed Norton is a tremendous actor, but I just didn’t buy him as Bruce Banner. Liv Tyler as Hulkie’s true love Betty Ross isn’t given a lot to do (neither was Connelly, but Connelly’s a more talented actress, I think, and was able to transcend the limitations of the character on paper). The real slap in the face to the original cast was replacing Sam Elliott as General “Thunderbolt” Ross. I think Elliott as General Ross is one of the best comic book casting decisions ever, and William Hurt just comes off looking like a schlub in bad makeup.Maybe I’m complaining too much. Maybe I need to lighten up, it’s just a movie. But, c’mon, you take a great comic character and give him a silly little action movie when you had another film (MADE JUST FIVE YEARS AGO!!!) that was so much better. I don’t know, it kind of pisses me off. I know Hollywood is a land where money rules everything, but seriously, this is a little ridiculous.

The Happening

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

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There are few big name directors currently working in Hollywood who polarize audiences as thoroughly and frequently as M. Night Shyamalan does. Some view him as a genius, a master of the fantasy and suspense genres and a true original. Others think he’s a hack who relies on twist endings to cover his shabby stories and silly dialogue. My feelings on Shyamalan tend to be somewhere towards the middle of these two sides. While I by no means think he’s a genius or superb director, I am also not convinced that he’s a hack.True, I’ve only really liked two of his films (Unbreakable and Signs), and even those weren’t perfect films, but they were interesting, told a good story and were anchored by good performances. His other films have good ideas at the core, I think, but something along the way gets lost in translation and the finished product is kind of a mess. The Sixth Sense I just didn’t like, I’ll admit it. It was goofy and if you take away “the twist,” you have an incredibly boring drama. The Village was a disaster, I think, and Lady in the Water was a failure, yeah, but man, it had some great pieces to it, I thought.This is all buildup, I guess, to talking about his latest interesting idea turned into mediocre movie: The Happening. The Happening, more than any of Shyamalan’s films, I think shows his struggles as an actor’s director. Mark Wahlberg is the kind of performer who needs a good actor’s director to give a good lead performance. Look at Scorsese’s The Departed or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, these are directors who can help guide and steer performances. Of course, the script to The Happening doesn’t really give Wahlberg a chance to shine (Zooey Deschanel, who is usually such a fine actress, is especially hindered by the weak script).The Happening has an intriguing concept, but just doesn’t pull it off. Imagine that all of the sudden, a bunch of people (and I mean lots of people) start killing themselves, and nobody knows why. Imagine it spreads, like wildfire. Imagine there’s no way to get away from it. Then, imagine a movie that takes this plot and does next to nothing with it. Of course, it’s kind of ironic, I guess, for a film called The Happening not have much happen in it (a more accurate title, I think, would be “The Crappening.”)I appreciate that Shyamalan takes his time with the thrills and chills, relying on subtleties to show the threats the characters face (the breeze in the wind, for example), but he just doesn’t pull it off. He also creates subplots and sidetrips that don’t really have a point. The only actor who really made an impression on me was Frank Collison as the hot dog obsessed nursery owner who has his own crack-pot reason why the epidemic is “happening.” His wacky, burned out hippie type is the only character that stands out in this film. Everybody else (including a criminally misused John Leguizamo, Betty Buckley, ridiculously cast as a mean ol’ hermit lady, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Alan Ruck) fades into the background.M. Night Shyamalan may someday make another movie that is worth watching, but it might be a while.

Cyd Charisse (1921-2008)

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

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Vertigo

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

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When I think of most of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces, I think of characters, plot details, specific scenes or lines of dialog. When I think of Vertigo, I think of mood, colors, Bernard Hermann’s frenzied, brilliant score, the unmatched beauty of Kim Novak, the image of Jimmy Stewart’s terrified, sweaty face after he wakes from a horrible nightmare (a nightmare which is a triumph of Hitchcock’s imagination, by the way). I think of the superb title sequence by the legendary Saul Bass that opens the picture (with a little help from Hermann’s mesmerizing theme).A couple of Sundays ago I had the opportunity to see Vertigo in its restored print at Cinema 21, in Northwest Portland. Cinema 21 is definitely one of my favorite theaters, and getting to see a revival showing of a classic film is a perfect way to end a weekend (or start a week, if you want to look at it that way). Now, I’ve seen Vertigo several times (and have analyzed it once or twice in film classes), but watching it on the big screen, in my favorite seat at Cinema 21 (the middle of the front row of the balcony, if you must know) was like watching it for the first time.I have no idea what my favorite list of Hitchcock films would look like, and I refuse to make one until I’ve seen all of them (a few of his more obscure entries have yet to be seen by me), but for my money, this would go somewhere towards the top. James Stewart’s work here definitely could be considered one of his greatest roles, and Kim Novak, in my opinion, is every bit as much the quintessential ‘Hitchcock Blond’ as Grace Kelly ever was. The film is considered a murder mystery, which I guess it is, but I think Vertigo is too unique of a film to be reduced to a genre.It’s always been, I think, more of a fever-induced dream (or nightmare.) It has the logic of a dream, at least; an otherworldly, slightly surreal feeling and mood. This is the kind of film people get lost in. Since the plot and character aspects of the film are not those which I first focus on, I hope you forgive me that I won’t concentrate too much on that.Much has been written about how this film is really about Hitchcock, and the way he used, controlled and manipulated the actresses in his films. You can see this in the Scotty (Jimmy Stewart) tries to mold his new love, Judy (Kim Novak), in the same image as his dearly departed, Madeline (also played by Novak). Of course, both of these women really are the same woman, so add that to another layer in the twisty, tricky script (written by Alec Coppel & Samuel Taylor). This reading of the film is the standard film geek reading, and it’s interesting, but the film also works if you’re not familiar with Hitchcock or this reading of the film.As I said earlier, this is one of the key performances in Stewart’s long and illustrious career, and Novak’s performance(s) is (are) crucial to the film’s success. Also crucial are the performances of Barbara Bel Geddes as Stewart’s friend who carries a torch for him, and Tom Helmore as Gavin Elster, an old college buddy of Scotty’s who hires him to follow his wife, Madeline.Oh, I forgot to even mention the astounding cinematography by Robert Burks (this really should be seen on the big screen at least once). Vertigo is a bona fide classic by one of the greats.

Stan Winston (1946-2008)

Monday, June 16th, 2008

Stan Winston, the celebrated, four-time Oscar winning special effects guru, has died. He was 62. Winston was a pioneer in his field, working on such films as Aliens, The Terminator, T2: Judgment Day, Predator and, of course, Jurassic Park.

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Kung Fu Panda

Monday, June 9th, 2008

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    Jack Black as a giant animated panda bear who becomes a kung fu hero. If the last sentence amused you, intrigued you or made you laugh out loud, then Kung Fu Panda is probably a film you would enjoy immensely. If Jack Black is not your cup of tea, then I would proceed with caution (unless you have kids, or teens, or twenty-somethings named Adam in your family, in which case you might have to see it anyway). The film is silly, endearing, sweet and immensely entertaining. It’s a breath of fresh air in a genre (the computer animated film) that can sometimes be quite stale.

Ok, it’s basically a generic underdog story, but when the character is such a lovable lug (and Po the Panda is definitely fits the description), it’s hard to be a grump about this movie. Po (Jack Black, of course, doing his slacker schtick wonderfully) is a Panda Bear who dreams of being a kung fu expert, but is destined to be a noodle chef, just like his father, Mr. Ping, who happens to be a duck (or a goose, I couldn’t really tell), and is voiced by James Hong, who is a hoot. Anyway, the plot involves Po being picked as the dragon warrior, and everyone doubting the prophecy, most notably the kung fu master Shifu (played by Dustin Hoffman, who is really quite good here).Of course, the evil Tai Lung (Ian McShane) thinks he’s the dragon warrior, and has broken out of prison to strike his revenge on the peaceful valley, and Shifu, his former master. Oh, I didn’t even mention Shifu’s star pupils, The Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu, surely the casting of Lucy Liu as a ‘viper’ is a Kill Bill joke) and Monkey (Jackie Chan). The real heart and soul of the film, though, is the relationship between Po and Shifu, and surely Black and Hoffman are both owed a great deal to the fact that this film works as well as it does.Or maybe I just enjoy really silly movies like this more than I should. You know what, no, I will not apologize. This is a really fun movie. It’s funny, it’s got good performances, the animation is crisp and detailed (and there is also a spectacular opening sequence done in the style of Anime) and it leaves you with a smile on your face that will last for hours. Pretty good for a summer cartoon, if you ask me.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Monday, June 9th, 2008

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Part of me wonders what the Narnia films would’ve been like if they weren’t Disney productions. Ok, maybe that makes me sound like some kind of film snob, some ranting, snooty type who refuses to embrace big-budget summer movies, so don’t take it the wrong way. But, the humor, magic, satire and brilliance of the books has been replaced by a tamer, less interesting beast. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe adaptation a few years ago was enjoyable (mostly thanks to Tilda Swinton’s fine work as the White Witch), but it was still much weaker than most of us Narnia fans were expecting. I don’t know, maybe I expect too much from fantasy book adaptations, but then again, Lord of the Rings set the bar pretty high, I guess.Prince Caspian has some wonderful moments, and a few inspired performances, but it just feels silly and watered down, especially in the last fifteen minutes. Peter (William Moseley), Lucy (Georgie Henley), Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) wind up, once again, in Narnia, only it’s been over a thousand years in Narnia time, so everybody they knew is dead. And Aslan, the Christ-like Lion ruler of Narnia, is nowhere to be found. The four kids wind up getting embroiled in the life of Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), and his struggles concerning his diabolical Uncle, King Miraz (Sergio Castelitto).I liked the great Peter Dinklage as Trumpkin, the noble dwarf, and Eddie Izzard does good voice-over work as Reepicheep, the swashbuckling mouse. The political drama concerning Caspian and his uncle could’ve been a lot more interesting, but then again, much of this movie could’ve been a lot more interesting. My review may sound like it’s becoming a little schizophrenic, but that’s probably because I saw this movie nine days ago, so my memory’s a little hazy. Oh yeah, it’s a kick to see Warwick Davis as Nikabrik, another dwarf.Prince Caspian is a mediocre, silly would-be blockbuster that’s family-friendly but, guess what, that doesn’t make it any better. It also doesn’t help that Prince Caspian, the book, is the weakest of the series. So, maybe it was damned from the start.